Monday, February 22, 2016

Black Lives Do Matter by Reverend Tom Capo

How do we put value on lives?  There is a movement in our country called “Black Lives Matter.”  Our Unitarian Universalist Association has a web page devoted to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which continues to build as more and more awareness of systemic racism is raised.   Trayvon Marin, Michael Brown, Jr., Eric Garner.  How many more Black men have to be killed before America wakes up to the racial injustice inherent in our daily lives?  What will it take for us to stand up as white allies and speak truth to power?
(Unitarian Universalist Association voted to support the Black Lives Matter movement:

In the book Soul Work: anti-racism theologies in dialogue, Reverend Patricia Jimenez writes: “Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Paul Rasor has suggested and others have affirmed [that] racism [and oppression are] problems of “othering” people, of holding some up as superior and putting others down as inferior.  It is embedded in our way of doing things in this country and gets played out in many ways, including personal disdain and hatred, institutional discrimination, and cultural domination.  All of these represent power-over—domination, which is a fundamental evil, a theological problem that we [Unitarian Universalists] are seeking to address.”

I have heard some people, some liberal voices say, “Instead of promoting ‘Black Lives Matter’ why don’t we affirm that ‘All Lives Matter’.  Making the movement about ‘All Live Matter’ would raise everyone’s worth and value to the same level, rather than focusing just on people of color.”  Well, before I answer that, let’s hear from Peter, a white man: “Here and now, I don't feel affirmed living out issues of race. This is a dirty business willed to us by people who looked like me. However, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and I can do nothing without doing some harm. I am moving from being an etherized White man ignorant of race to being a European American man discomforted everywhere...My participation at a self-consciously diverse Unitarian Universalist church dismantling racism in fits and starts has offered consolation. Despite my being and my action, my brothers and sisters remain authentically engaged with me in things that I get right and things that I get wrong. Like an unreformed drunk (since my culture will not yet allow me to live one hour, much less one day at a time, privilege-free), I must lean on the good will of my fellow travelers in this religious community I have chosen to join. It’s their good will and its reflection of their perception of my good will that offers affirmation.” 

The voices you will hear throughout this sermon are those of Unitarian Universalists struggling with racism and oppression—none of them are from our church.  I will also share some of my experiences and insights.  My hope is something you hear today will touch you, reach you, and perhaps motivate you to look at racism and oppression differently.  Our faith calls us to intentional work to dismantle racism and oppression, in our churches and in our world.  Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and our heritage as change agents in society call us to do this work.  However, we need to remember as we do this work that we are human, and humans have blinders.  Even Unitarian Universalist humans have blinders.  We don’t always recognize when racism or oppression happens around us, even when it happens in our denomination or in our church.  I know it has happened in our churches.  

This voice is Cathy, an African American woman involved in a Unitarian Universalist church.
“Throughout all my years as a parent and teacher in the Religious Education program at my home congregation, I felt the need for inclusion of materials that were culturally and racially relevant for my children. All the curriculum materials are from a dominant culture point of view. I felt that people got tired of my asking for alternative points of view to be represented by someone other than myself. I felt that some White adults were uncomfortable around my children. A number of times I felt that the Religious Education volunteers were afraid of my African American son. There were unconscious racist remarks made. Over the years my children were often the only Children of Color in their RE classes. One Sunday, in the Youth Group, an adult advisor said to my child, ‘When you wear those glasses you don’t look Black.’…I did connect my children to the wider UU community so that they could have an experience of more diversity, but I still worry about the effects of being isolated from a larger African American community of faith has had on my children.”

 “When you wear those glasses you don't look Black.”  This is seemingly an off-hand comment, but one that strikes deep into the heart of the person hearing it.  Certainly the person making this comment was unaware that they were being racist.  They did not intend any harm.  We all carry within us prejudices, blinders, biases, incorrect knowledge of others—all of us.  Part of our role in changing, in transforming, is awareness.  If we are unaware of our actions, if we are careless with our words, we are likely to cause pain to others.

 Listen to the voice of Sojourner, another African American woman:
“While experiencing racism within Unitarian Universalism has been painful, the reaction of UUs when I tell them my story has been even more disturbing to me. Usually most White listeners will want to hear the particulars of what happened to judge for themselves whether they would have named the incident as racism, instead of trusting me. I have to repeat time and time and [time] again the what, where, and how, and relive the pain. It feels like I am being judged as to whether our first Principle should be applied to me. Rarely does this trial occur when I share other stories of oppression around the multiple identities I carry. Thank goodness for listeners of Color and White allies. They hear with their hearts and believe me without the nitty-gritty. When I receive this affirmation it helps me heal and move on. My pain is transformed.”

I admit that I have struggled with racism and oppression.  When I was younger I was verbally threatened and physically intimidated by African American boys in Junior High.  And for many years, avoided interacting with African American boys or men, thinking they too would be aggressive toward me.  When I was younger, I made fun of people who were fat, at least fatter than me, who I thought were not as smart as me, who looked geeky, I mean geekier than me.  Fortunately, I came to realize some of what I was doing and changed my behavior.  From that point on, I reached out to people who were different from me which helped me begin to work through my fears and prejudices. 
I really make every attempt within my own limited awareness of the world to no longer oppress others in order to empower myself and improve my self-esteem.  This was by no means an easy process, nor is it a process I do alone.  Chad Simmons, an African American friend of mine and the Director of Diversity Focus, a Cedar Rapids nonprofit working with industry to reduce racism and oppression, was one of my guides, a mentor who helped me grow emotionally and spiritually.  We attended a workshop together a several years ago called White Men as Full Diversity Partners.  This program encourages white male leaders to recognize their privilege of being white and male – of being dominant in our culture, which many in the workshop had never fully considered before.  The attendees of this workshop were not just white men; they were men and women of many different races, cultures, and sexual orientations.  Part of the goal was to begin building bridges between people and cultures, to share each of our emotional journeys through life, our perspectives on events, and learn that we all experience the world, at least sometimes, in very different ways.  After the workshop, Chad and I decided to get together.  We shared with one another more deeply, asking those questions of one another that we had no-one else to ask; and in my case was afraid to ask.  One of the most important things I learned from our conversations and from our relationship is how differently people live in the same world.  How two people can have the same experience, yet how unique meanings of that experience can be, and how some experiences might have occurred for very different reason.  As an example, in talking with my African American friends, I hear all of them say that they have stories of being stopped by the police.  Now I have been stopped by the police for speeding, and thought nothing of it.  Heck, I have often gotten out of tickets because I am clergy.  But my friends were primarily stopped because they were Black.  Now you might wonder how they know this.  But I assure you, they were not speeding; they were not weaving in traffic; they did not roll through or run a stop sign; their seat belts were buckled; they were not under the influence; their cars were not missing license plates or rearview mirrors.  They only thing they were guilty of was driving while being Black.  They live with this every day.  They know that even though they are affluent, well-dressed, well-known in the community, they might still be stopped and accused of stealing, drug possession, or having committed a crime just because they are black.  And Chad told me that Black mothers and fathers tell their children that they will be stopped while driving because they are Black; so the children will understand when it happens.  Aberjhani, an American historian, columnist, novelist, poet, and editor, put it this way: “the issue, perhaps, boils down to one of how perceptions or misperceptions of racial difference impacts various individual’s, or groups of individuals’ experiences of freedom in America.  Some would argue that it goes beyond hampering their ‘pursuit of happiness’ to outright obliterating it.” 

I had a conversation with my brothers not too long ago.  They are both business professionals.  My youngest brother is Vice President of a company, and hires many people.  He declared that he was not prejudiced at all.  In fact, he hires people based on their ability to do the job—heck, he even hired a Black woman recently, not because she was Black but because she was the best qualified candidate.  I asked him if he thought that every person in America had the same opportunities for learning; that every person could gain the experiences they needed in order to qualify for jobs in his company.  He’d never considered how poverty or institutional racism or oppression, threaded through every event of a lifetime, impacts a person’s educational opportunities and, in turn, job opportunities.  Eventually he did realize that some people do not have the money, the life experience, the available educational opportunities, or even the awareness of what they needed to do to be eligible for any job he might hire for.  

Now let me get back to the question of whether we affirm and promote the movement “Black Lives Matter” or whether the “All Lives Matter” movement is really better because it more “inclusive.”  I think Unitarian Universalist Reverend Daniel Schatz answered this question well in a letter to someone advocating for “All Lives Matter": “Of course all lives matter. Central to Unitarian Universalism is the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Sadly, our society has a long history of treating some people as less valuable than others. Study after study has confirmed that in equivalent situations, African Americans and Latinos are treated with deadly force far more often than White people, and authorities held less accountable…To say that Black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not; indeed, it is quite the reverse—it is to recognize that all lives do matter, and to acknowledge that African Americans are often targeted unfairly … and that our society is not yet so advanced as to have become truly color blind. This means that many people of goodwill face the hard task of recognizing that these societal ills continue to exist, and that White privilege continues to exist, even though we wish it didn’t and would not have asked for it …As a White man, I have never been followed by security in a department store, or been stopped by police for driving through a neighborhood in which I didn’t live …To deny the truth of these experiences because they make me uncomfortable would be to place my comfort above the safety of others, and I cannot do that …it is painfully evident that a great many people do not believe that they are treated fairly. Healing begins by listening to those voices and stories.” 

So where do we go from here?  How can we make a difference?  At a very basic level each of us can reach out to people who we perceive as different from us in some way.  We can get to know them, perhaps even engage in dialogue about how we and they experience the world.  And I am not talking about a sort of Starbucks “Race Together” exchange; I mean an in-depth conversation.  We can walk alongside people of color and those on the margins to add our privileged, powerful white voices to theirs as they fight for equality and justice, which is different from trying to “help” them get equality and justice.  Indigenous Australian, visual artist, activist, and academic, Lila Watson wrote:  “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time.   But if you recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together, we can walk together.”  And we can bring more multicultural experiences to this church—giving us exposure to different ways of believing, different music, different lifestyles, and different values.  

Here is one other thing we can do in our church.  Radical Hospitality, radically accept all who join us.  Not just tolerance when strangers walk through our doors; we must welcome each and every person with open arms, as long-lost family, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here.  My life may be different than yours, so please tell me your stories; I want to hear them. I want us to understand each other. I recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together.  Please, may I walk with you?”

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Feminist Theology Part 2, Readings

Member Edna Groves Shares her Experiences with Feminism

“All I have to do is look at the table of contents in The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan and first published in 1963, and I quickly drop back inside myself to 1967, when I first read the book. We were living in South Bend, Indiana, in a large rented home. Tom had an interim professorship at Notre Dame and our four daughters ranged in age from 12 to 3. Caring for them and keeping a home were my primary—and only—jobs. I was doing the best I could to be happy in motherhood and wifehood, taking care of others. I knew something was missing; I had known that for quite a while. Even though I had a college degree, being a wife and mother were supposed to be enough. Some joked that the “M.R.S” degree was all we needed. Still, I was restless, anxious and aimless.

And then I read the book. The first chapter of The Feminine Mystique is titled “The Problem That Has No Name.” I remember being curled up in the over-stuffed chair in the living room, our daughters either in school or napping, my eyes glued to the pages where she had captured my life experience and questions.  “Who am I? Do I really exist at all? Why do I feel like crying all the time? What’s wrong with me? Is this all there is?”  In this book—and others that followed—I saw that my personal challenges were part of a huge collective experience just being uncovered. There were so MANY of us in the 1950s and ‘60s who thought marriage and children would bring life-time fulfillment and found otherwise. In consciousness-raising groups we were talking about it.

Unformed as I was in 1967, I knew that my life was going to change. There was more to me than I knew, and I was going to discover what that was. By 1975 I was a committed feminist, had a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and a seedling sense of self. The questions? As Rilke writes, I was “living my way into the answers.” Not easy, but necessary.

My understanding of feminist theology tells me I have the right to define my life. I can discern how to grow into my potential. Further, my personal experience is to be valued, and shared when I wish. My personal need and desire to grow, and my belief I had a right and responsibility to live into my potential intersects with feminist theology. So does my ongoing experience that my creativity enables me to be a catalyst for others. In very long hindsight I see that I went from not having a self and living through others, to learning and acting on what mattered to me and navigating my way in the world as a self-defining woman. Later in my life, when the psychological quest morphed into a spiritual quest, further evolving  brought me to my Self—the capital “S” standing for a deep, soulful ground inside of me which is loving, available, and a source of sustenance for myself and to others.”

The Legend of Tokoyo, The Samurai’s Daughter

One fateful day, a samurai (who was the envy of many because of his skills) was framed; someone has made the Emperor ill and weak, and started the rumor that the samurai had poisoned the Emperor.  And so the samurai was banished to a faraway island.
Tokoyo, the samurai’s loving daughter, became miserable; she loved her father so much. She was very determined to be reunited with the only family she had left, so she set out on a journey to find and rescue him.

First, she sold all of their possessions to a merchant to gain money for the journey. She journeyed long and far towards the coastline, where in the light of day, the faraway island can be seen very dimly.
She tried to persuade the fishermen to bring her to the island, but she didn’t have enough money left to pay for the trip, so they refused to take her. Still, she never gave up. That night, she found a small, old boat on the bay, and she set sail for the island.

It was a hard journey in the small boat, but it was nothing for the valiant Tokoyo. It was still dark when she arrived shore, and she spent all day looking for her father on that island, but failed.
Night came, and a very tired and sad Tokoyo decided to rest under a tree.

After a few hours, she was awakened by the sound of a sobbing girl.  Tokoyo hid behind a bush, and saw a girl dressed in a white robe standing with a priest. They were on the edge of a cliff, and the priest was in the act of pushing the girl off of it.

Tokoyo came out from the bushes to rescue the girl. The priest paused and explained to Tokoyo what he was doing.

Apparently, an ancient serpent-dragon called Yofune-Nushi inhabited the seas around the island. Yofune-Nushi threatened to terrorize the people on the island and destroy the fishing industry (the island-people's only source of income), unless they sacrifice a virgin girl to him every year. 

It was said that as long as they kept their end of the bargain, the dragon would leave the town alone.

Feeling that this was very unjust, Tokoyo offered to take the girl's place. She wore the girl's white offering dress and jumped down from the cliff, diving into the ocean with a dagger in her teeth, much to the amazement of the priest and the girl.

Tokoyo dived deeper and deeper, until she found a cave. Above the mouth of the cave was a small statue of the Emperor. Out of her anger towards the Emperor, she took the statue to destroy it. But after some reflection decided it would be better to take it up on the shore to destroy rather than trying to break it underwater, so she tied it to her belt.

Suddenly, the dragon. Yofune-Nushi came out from the cave. He assumed that Tokoyo was the offering, so he attacked her. Tokoyo quickly put up her defenses and blocked the attack.  Then Tokoyo plunged her dagger into the dragon’s eye.

Blinded, the dragon made his way back into the cave, but Tokoyo chased after him. Again, the dragon put up a fight, but the brave Tokoyo continued to attack him!

At last, when the vile Yofune-Nushi was killed, Tokoyo dragged him up on the shore, where she slumped on the sand.  She was weak and tired after such a great fight.

The priest and the girl ran towards her; they couldn't believe she beat the dragon. The priest carried Tokoyo back to the village, where the news of her heroism spread like wildfire.

The news reached the Emperor, who was now well and healthy. The Emperor found out that the dragon Yofune-Nushi had cursed the statue of the Emperor, and so when Tokoyo killed the dragon and retrieved the statue, the curse was lifted.

Realizing that Tokoyo's father was innocent, the Emperor released him from banishment and brought him back home to his daughter. The Emperor regretted banishing his best samurai, so he gave Tokoyo and her father a huge sum of rewards and treasures.
Tokoyo was also given the privilege to serve at the palace as a samurai warrior alongside her father, and they lived happily ever after.
Poem by feminist artist Kate Rose. 

(Rev. Tom chose to softened the profanity in the poem for the worship service.) 

“This one is for you.
For the dream seekers and the rebels, the ones who not only don’t fit into the mold—they … break it as well.

This is for the women who do give a …[damn].

We give a [damn] about ourselves, our lives and those that matter most to us—but mostly we give a [damn] about making a difference in this one amazing life.

We know that we weren’t born to play life small, and while life has tried to smack us down at times, we stand right back up asking—is that all you’ve got?

This is for the women …[willing] to be themselves—unapologetically…willing to risk, to go after what we love.

This is for the women who stay up late chasing dreams, and are up early with the sun making them a reality.

This is for those women with thirsty hearts and messy hair—the ones who march to the beat of our hearts and often find ourselves alone because of our choices.

This one is for you, for me, and for all the women who often wonder if they are alone in their individuality.

You’re not.

And although we are as unique as they come, we all are linked because of the desire to break free from the expectation that we need to be well-behaved women in order to be loved.
We can’t follow the rules for the life of us.

When given the choice we always choose the most difficult road, because that is where we often learn the most.

This is for the women who take care of themselves. We are masters at keeping our [act] together, even when it seems we can’t take one more step.

This is for the women who tuck themselves into bed each night. It’s not because we don’t want a lover with us, but because we know that, unless it’s genuine, solitude is so much sweeter than putting on an act.

This is for the women who just won’t conform no matter how many times people shake their heads at us.

These are the women who drink moonshine underneath the stars with their bare feet dirty, and their eyes wild dreaming of their next adventure.

The women who prefer to be untamed. We don’t care about letting our crazy show because we know it’s just as seductive as the pull of our eyes.

This is for all the women who’ve had people ask why we can’t just be like everyone else. Why can’t we stay in unhappy relationships? Why can’t we just stay with the secure job? Why can’t we just suck it up because we are adults? That is what adults are supposed to do.
But we were born differently. Where others see stability, we see stifling.

“We dream of a life that fills us with inspiration, and we dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for.” (~ Alice Hoffman)

We don’t know how to give up on the desires of our hearts.

And while we may seem to wander aimlessly at times, it’s all part of our un-plan. Because some are just born to be the movers and shakers in this life—to rattle and shake things up a bit.
And while we may drive you crazy at times, and scare the …[snot] out of you at others, life would be boring without us.

For we are the wild ones—the ones who make life worth living.”

Rev. Tom